Who invented the Chronometer?


The Search for the Longitude, a Vital Reckoning for Navigation

Gemma Frisius and Christian Huyghens both tried to invent a chronometer, but it was John Harrison who won £20,000 from the British Parliament in 1765.

Five centuries ago, when European navigators first began to venture out into the world’s oceans, they were in many ways ill-equipped for the task. Their ships, plane (flat) charts and navigational equipment and methods were suited to coast-hugging voyages in European waters.

Confronting the Mighty Oceans

When it came to mighty ocean currents, mountainous seas, long distances and weeks, sometimes months, out of sight of land, it was as totally different story. The most serious single drawback was the lack of a reliable means of reckoning longitude, for without that it was impossible to accurately pinpoint a ship’s position at sea, or identify its next landfall.

The solution was not easy to find. In 1530, the Flemish mathematician and astronomer Gemma Frisius suggested that a watch would be the best method for reckoning longitude. Unfortunately, in Frisius’ time, watches were not accurate enough to produce a suitable device.

The Quest for the Longitude

Nevertheless, Frisius’ idea launched a “search for the longitude”, as it was known. This gave rise to many fantastic contraptions, including clocks driven by the wind or a burning wick saturated in oil.

In the 17th century, the main problem was the disturbing effect of changing temperatures on a watch’s balance spring. This scuttled success for the marine clock designed in 1660 by Christian Huyghens, the Dutch mathematician and astronomer. This first time piece, specifically designed for use at sea, was driven by a coiled spring.

Huyghens’ clock had a verge escapement controlled by a pendulum and was set on gimbals to enable it to remain constantly upright. Despite good results on sea trials during a voyage to West Africa, further trials revealed that only in a totally calm see – a rare state for an ocean – did the clock keep going without having to be adjusted and restarted.

Would-be inventors now attacked the temperature problem with gusto, but the best they were able to do was to avoid temperature changes altogether by placing their timepieces near a fire. No sea captain in his right mind would have allowed such a thing, since an outbreak of fire on board the wooden ships of the time was the disaster sailors most dreaded.

Parliament offers a Prize

The longitude was still undiscovered in 1714, when the British Parliament stepped in and offered a prize for a workable solution. Anyone who could devise a method of determining longitude to within one degree would receive £10,000, to within forty minutes, £15,000 and to within half a degree £20,000.

The prize remained on offer for nearly fifty years and when it was eventually claimed, the winner, John Harrison, took the jackpot.

The Work of John Harrison

John Harrison, a self-taught mechanic, was born in Yorkshire in northern England in 1693. In 1726, he built two time-measuring instruments or regulators, which contained a grasshopper escapement – a remontoire, a small balancing weight attached to a serrated wheel – and a special gridiron pendulum of his own design. This pendulum was made of brass and steel.

Since brass expands faster than steel, Harrison reckoned that a clock equipped with this bi-metal pendulum had the best chance of overcoming temperature changes, making a clock work more accurately.

Harrison spent the next six years constructing a chronometer based on his regulator design. It was controlled by two balances equipped with four helical balance springs and connected to each other by wires threaded over brass arcs. The opposing motion of the balances was intended to compensate for the motion of a ship at sea. Harrison also included modified versions of his grasshopper escapement and bi-metal gridiron pendulum.

Harrison Wins the Prize

In 1737, the time-keeper performed so well on a return voyage to Lisbon in Portugal that the Board of Longitude, which handled the government prize, voted Harrison a total of £3,500 to perfect his chronometer. Thirty five years passed and the time-keeper went through three more designs before Harrison was sufficiently satisfied to allow sea trials to take place.

In 1761, Harrison’s son, William, took the latest design, called Number Four on board HMS Deptford which on November 18, sailed from Spithead along the south coast of England to Jamaica. On arrival, William found that Number Four was only five minutes slow, entailing an error in longitude of 1.25 minutes. This enabled John Harrison to claim the full £20,000 prize which the Board of Longitude awarded him in 1765.

Captain Cook and Mr. Kendall’s Watch

Seven years later, Captain James Cook used a copy of Number Four made by the watchmaker Larcum Kendall on his second voyage to the Pacific. Number Four was a brilliant success, for as Cook reported “Mr. Kendall’s watch exceeded all expectations.”

It took some fifty years to overcome the natural superstition of seamen – many saw the chronometer as a form of witchcraft – but by 1825, the chronometer was general issue in the Royal Navy.

John Harrison Chronometers Rusted Away – Then Came Rupert Gould

John Harrison made marine chronometers to solve the longitude problem & win a fortune. Rupert Gould saved them to take their place in horological history.

John Harrison. an Englishman, provided late 18th Century ocean navigators with the vital tool – the marine chronometer – they needed to define their position on the earth’s surface.

Previously they might know the parallel of latitude they were on, but their longitude would be no more than a perilous estimate. It was, as Dava Sobel has described it in her seminal book, ‘Longitude’: ‘The greatest scientific problem of the age’.

Harrison devoted much of a long life to crafting a series of marine chronometers of ever-increasing accuracy until at last in June, 1773, his H4 chronometer won him lasting recognition and a prize that aggregated to more that two million pounds sterling (at today’s approximation).

Harrison’s solution to the longitude problem was worth every penny of that, in terms of lives and property saved from shipwreck and other disasters at sea.

The four chronometers Harrison painstakingly crafted, of immense scientific interest to the horologist and technological historian, lay corroding in a corner of one of the Royal Observatory’s storerooms at Greenwich until a man named Rupert Gould stumbled upon them in March, 1920.

Gould realizing the value of these chronometers to posterity, offered to repair and restore them all free of charge. It was a task that was to consume him for the next fifteen years.

Robert Gould

A six-foot-four-inch tall polymath, Gould discovered the forgotten and deteriorating Harrison chronometers quite fortuitously while researching his book – a work that is still definitive – ‘The Marine Chronometer, Its History & Development.’

A naval officer of great promise until dogged by mental health problems that were exacerbated by a bitter marriage breakdown, Gould sought solace in the restoration of the Thomas Harrison chronometers, working all hours alone in a tiny attic room.

In his relatively short lifetime (Gould was only fifty-seven when he died in 1948) his grasp of a great spread of knowledge was extensive, and he became well-known later as a BBC radio broadcaster, dubbed, ‘The Man Who Knew Everything.’

Oddly enough he also found time for sport, focusing upon the rules and history of tennis with the same intense concentration he gave to the Harrison chronometers, and in the 1930’s Gould occupied the umpire’s chair on Wimbledon’s ‘center court’ more than a few times.

Restoration of the Harrison Chronometers by Gould

The restoration work began immediately in 1920 with chronometer H1, while H3 proved the most time-consuming of all, with no less than seven hundred of its parts needing restoration. This chronometer alone took him seven years to restore.

Gould left behind a treasure-trove for the technological historian with his meticulous notes and drawings of every stage of his work in eighteen detailed notebooks. These notebooks illuminate in their magnificent drawings and detail the scale and range of Harrison’s horological inventiveness

The Harrison Chronometers On Display

It was Gould who abbreviated the designations of the Harrison chronometers to their familiar present-day ones – H1, H2, H3, and H4 – the names they are presently cataloged under and exhibited at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

These Harrison chronometers now tick away in the ‘Time Galleries’ of the museum, where they are wound up by a white-gloved curator, who refers to them reverently as ‚’The Harrisons’, just as if they were part of a living family. And in a sense they are; thanks to Rupert Gould.

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